- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2012

Professional golf tournaments, like every sporting event, have certain customs that give them life. The traditions established and upheld by fans provide the flair and so much of what makes these competitions special.

When the leader of a tournament makes a birdie on the back nine in the third round, crowds respond with a booming cheer. There are sure to be some boisterous patrons who yell, “Get in the hole!” after tee shots just for kicks. And when Tiger Woods surges on a Saturday to position himself for a run at a victorious Sunday finish, the gallery’s roars usually echo around the golf course, serving notice that one of the game’s greatest players is in form.

None of that occurred Saturday, though, in the quiet bizarro world that was Congressional Country Club.

AT&T National officials closed Saturday’s third round to ticket-holding patrons in the interest of safety after Friday night’s derecho downed 40 trees and littered club grounds with loads of debris.

So Woods‘ surge to 6-under par for the tournament and leader Brendon de Jonge’s fight to hold him off with a one-shot lead was witnessed live only by a handful of reporters, a skeleton crew of course marshals, a few club members and some friends and family of players.

“It was like playing a practice round overseas,” Woods said.

The world’s most famous golfer is accustomed to playing in front of galleries stacked 10 people deep at major tournaments. The images from his bogey-free, 4-under 67, then, were surreal. An intimate gathering of about 50 spectators followed him around the Blue Course. “I told Tiger that was a Bo Van Pelt crowd,” cracked Van Pelt, one of Woods‘ playing partners. Van Pelt has won only once in 309 PGA tournaments.

There was firm applause when Woods drained his 8-foot birdie putt on No. 1, but nothing like the normal cheer of a packed house eager for Tiger to force his way into contention.

Woods, who began the round five shots behind 36-hole leader Hunter Mahan, closed the gap again by swirling in a 40-foot birdie put on No. 3. He was surprised to not miss the energy of the crowd’s usual reaction.

“Making birdie at Nos. 1 and 3, whether there was applause or not, now I’m only three back,” Woods said. “Let’s keep chipping away at this lead.”

Woods provided a signature moment by chipping in for birdie on the par-5 sixth. His third shot bounced over the green and came to rest in the deep rough on the slope. He flopped a shot about 6 feet high in the air, and it trickled home.

“It might have been a little bit louder on 6 when I holed that shot than just 20 people clapping,” Woods said with a smile.

His round retained at least some semblance of normalcy because of the few fans offering support. The final group, including de Jonge and Mahan, walked long stretches of the course without a single fan following them.

Kandi Mahan sat by herself next to several fairways and greens with a clear view of her husband’s path to a 2-over 73. And when that group was on the 11th tee, dozens of television workers cleared the course because their live broadcast concluded at 6 p.m.

de Jonge shot a 2-under 69 to take a one-shot lead over Woods, Van Pelt and Seung-Yul Noh into Sunday’s final round. The Virginia Tech product has never won or even finished second in 136 career PGA tour events.

He made an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 12 to take a two-stroke lead. That feat would have provoked a loud cheer on a normal Saturday. Instead, his caddie made the only sound, muttering: “Nice putt.” There are louder reactions to birdies every day at your local track.

“It was actually really strange out there, took a while to get used to,” de Jonge said. “It’s nice to have people out there and get the buzz and kind of feed off adrenaline.”

A long Saturday in Bethesda actually began Friday night. Maintenance crews began working to clear the course of trees and debris shortly after the storm passed through.

Winds up to 70 miles per hour downed trees and blew over tents set up for the tournament. Fallen trees intersected fairways and walking paths. Smaller branches and leaves were strewn everywhere.

“It’s dangerous out there,” said Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competition. “With a lot of limbs down, a lot of trees down, places to walk and with a large gallery, we just thought it would be best if we didn’t allow that today. You all know what an extreme measure that is. We don’t do that.”

The start of the third round was delayed six hours while grounds crews, tournament officials and Tiger Woods Foundation members worked to get the course and tournament infrastructure ready for play.

Fans are welcome at Sunday’s final round, which is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Gates open at 9 a.m., and the final group, including Woods, tees off at 1 p.m. Tickets for Saturday will be honored Sunday, tournament director Greg McLaughlin said. Tournament officials will formulate a compensation plan for unused Saturday tickets.

After play completed on Saturday, grounds crews resumed their work clearing the course.

“They did an unbelievable job,” McLaughlin said. “Without them we would not have been able to play at all today. You come to Congressional because these guys host majors, and they have a grounds crew that hosts majors. With all due respect to grounds crews around the country, there’s a difference right there.”